Buried Treasure: Gostan Zarian in the Deep Blue Sea
With views on the nature of art and writing
Translated by Ara Baliozian
March 4, 2019 | by Alec Mouhibian
Like Lord Byron, Gostan “Constant” Zarian learned Armenian in his mid-twenties at the island of San Lazzaro. It was his third language, after Russian and French. From there he moved to Istanbul in 1913 to begin a literary journal called Mehian with a group of fellow Armenian writers who competed for top billing on the Ottoman extermination list.
He escaped the exterminator’s shadow, barely, in 1915. He returned to Istanbul to found a new journal in 1920, but had to escape again. Exodus took him through Smyrna as it burned. In 1922 he arrived at last in Yerevan, where he accepted a university chair with high hopes of a settled life in the promised homeland...just as it turned into a Bolshevik madhouse. In 1925 his Comparative Literature students outed him to the Cheka for ignoring Soviet doctrine. He fled — and for decades wandered Europe, the Middle East, the United States. He did odd literary jobs, working in all forms to re-author the asymmetrical mystery of his fate. At points he edited the Armenian Quarterly in New York and in Paris La Tour Babel, a French-language journal illustrated by Picasso, Delaunay, and Chagall. Having run out of places to escape, in 1961 he returned to Soviet Yerevan, where he was censored thoroughly until his death in 1969.
“A wild and roguish literary man of almost mythological quality,” is how Zarian was described by his close friend Lawrence Durrell, who celebrated him in poems, his novel Prospero’s Cell, and an an essay titled “Constant Zarian: Triple-Exile.” The title is a few exiles short of accurate. Zarian was not only an exile many times over — he was exile. He chose to write his real work, not in the Russian of his upbringing or the French of his thought, but in the Armenian of his prayers: the language of a soon-silenced culture. The literary exile caused by this decision is one from which the world suffered as much as the writer. Zarian might’ve been the first major author on the Soviet ground to see clear through the Communist lie and render it on paper. But his chilling 1926 memoir The Traveller and His Road appeared only in an Armenian Diaspora magazine, well out of the world’s sight.
Most of Zarian remains unpublished in any language. Only three of his books exist at all in English: Traveller, Bancoon and the Bones of the Mammoth (1934), and The Island and a Man (1955). These were all serialized in Boston’s long-defunct Hairenik Monthly and are now out-of-print, but thanks to their superb translator Ara Baliozian, they do exist.
Here we reach into The Island and a Man, a thinly fictionalized diary Zarian recorded on the Island of Ischia (Gulf of Naples). It includes a handful of reflections on the nature of art and writing. Perhaps they will give you the same sense they gave me: that of happening upon, not only buried treasure, but a whole secluded island — where the views are singular, the altitudes ever-shifting, and the soil is rich with the truth of the matter.
— Alec Mouhibian
Chapter: Island | p. 24
Here I am at last.
On the beach women are washing their clothes.
Overhead swallows dart like arrows.
That which we call here is in reality layers upon layers of history. A history that covers shapeless time.
Shapeless time. Something we cannot fathom. For beneath the surface of the sea of our memories and feelings lurks still another and deeper life to which we are participants without being aware of it. How can I explain with words that will tear asunder the shroud covering reality? The cry of raging fires beneath the earth and the unquenchable thirst of mountaintops.
Chapter: Tourists | p. 45 - 46
The ceaseless popping of soda bottles. Here and there the sound of loud guffaws. Young men in gaudy, ice-cream colored shirts bawling and caterwauling. Irate mothers scolding their children at the top of their lungs. Children screaming more loudly...There is something artificial and feminine about these fireworks of voices and colors. Though the sky is clear, the stars can hardly be seen. Brightly lit stores brim with fresh fruit. Slices of pastry are carefully lined on tables.
This mob wants to deceive life. In reality, however, it is life that deceives them. Life is transformed into the pop and fizz of a carbonated drink, grimaces, light sensations on thick lips. Scratch away this frivolous facade and you will expose a desert. When the peel of an eaten orange is cast to the ground it withers.
The barroom across the street is packed with foreign tourists. Its owner is a short, obese matron. An astute character and smart operator. Extremely affectionate. Everything is for sale here. A thousand rumors circulate. I don’t particularly like her clientele. They are the kind of people who tend to conceal their banality beneath a glossy patina of intellectual and artistic refinement. They belong to that international set that can be seen in Paris, London, and all over Italy.
I said international.
Authentic art is universal, not international.
Yes, that’s right.
The tree, the wildflower, the mountain — they are universal. Jazz is international. Everything that is fake and artificial is nearly always international.
It is man who adapts himself to that which is universal.
That which is international, on the other hand, adapts itself to man.
Trees, flowers, mountains.
An exile like me must retain these things in the depths of his heart. See them and be nurtured by them. Live with them.
“Waiter, another beer.”
Be nurtured by them.
Dante was an exile. He arranged the entire universe within the walls of Florence. Beneath its towers and battlements. And on the stark shores of the Arno. His works were not fashioned to suit a particular audience.
The songs of Provence — its language, manners, and mores — were all aimed at a specific contemporary audience. They were fashionable. They were international.
Where is Provence now? Where are its songs?
Chapter: Encounters | p. 58 - 59
Most of the people seated around tables were tourists. So-called artists and intellectuals. Searching, unfulfilled glances, warped lips, manufactured smiles. Most of them live on the margin of life. When art is not destiny, it degenerates into impotence and self-deception.
The other side of the hill was gradually lit up. The gilt edge of the full moon appeared, and as the sea opened its royal path, the landscape was enveloped in a magic light. With my wine I also drank that miracle which rushed through my body spreading a sweet, pleasant sensation as ethereal as light. On the other side of every darkness there is bound to be light. There is no such thing as absolute and permanent darkness. Not even in death. With death we descend into the depths of existence and wait for the new light that will rise from the other side of the hill. The light that will open before us the royal path which we shall traverse on a golden boat towards perfect being.
Chapter: On The Beach | p. 80 - 81
“Joyce is a dingy corridor that leads to a drably furnished room. A credo that has been lashed by the rebellious waves of the sea, the damp wind, and the slippery Irish rain. It is a small flame held between two trembling hands — it can spread some degree of warmth and light but it lacks the strength to illuminate the secrets of the cosmos. No matter how hard he tries, Joyce cannot altogether hide the odor of theology, or rather catechism, that emanates from his work. His is not an all-devouring, irresistible, healthy faith but a diluted pessimism. This is just an opinion of course. Since I’ve never been to Ireland, a great many things remain unclear to me.”
“Joyce is not Ireland, just Dublin.”
“A fine work that, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I enjoyed it very much.”
A book titled The Yerevantsis has not yet been written. Who could write it, I wonder. Today an Armenian author cannot write because he is himself in the process of being written.
Chapter: Flora | p. 88
What is a vision but a reflection of the self in a magic mirror? The world is an extension of the body. That which appears to our outer and inner eye is real. It is not in abstractions and verbal definitions that the divine spirit sees itself but through the eyes of men. Science and reason cannot explain the existence of saints and the reality of miracles. He who believes in miracles is actually a participant in a supernatural occurrence. If he were to assume the stance of a rational and impartial observer, saints and miracles would disappear simply because their existence is not rooted in objective reality and reason but in the human psyche. He who venerates saints is himself an extension and a personification of that saint. A saint is thus divided among those who believe in him, identify with him, are him. Denied and rejected, he vanishes.
Alec Mouhibian is the co-writer/director of 1915 The Movie, and Creative Armenia's VP of Programs and Productions.